Religious Liberty: Is the Council’s teaching infallible?

If one was forced to identify just one conciliar teaching that every self-described “traditionalist” (aka Catholic) agrees is a grievous error, the Vatican II doctrine on religious liberty would be an excellent choice, and for good reason; it explicitly contradicts the pre-conciliar magisterium. 

For example, the Council promotes as truth a proposition that was plainly condemned in the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX: “Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true. “

So far so good, but if you want to disturb the peace in trad-world, just pose the following critically important questions:

  • What does the presence of grievous error in the conciliar text say about the Council’s pedigree?
  • What does it say about Paul VI and his claim to the papacy?
  • Is it really possible for the bishops of the world to assemble in a valid Ecumenical Council of the Holy Roman Catholic Church; to overwhelmingly approve an obviously false teaching; to have that doctrine receive the approval of the Roman Pontiff, who orders that it be promulgated throughout the Universal Church?

Rather than attempting to actually answer these questions by examining the situation in the light of Catholic tradition, most “traditionalists” immediately retreat behind a stone wall of excuses, the most common of which was recently offered by a friend on social media as follows:

“Not all magisterial texts treat of infallible matter, nor teach dogmatically, nor require the obedience of faith.”

Before we consider whether or not this claim serves as a credible “escape hatch” that allows for a valid ecumenical council of the Catholic Church to teach error and, furthermore, allows the faithful to reject said teaching out of hand, it’s necessary to examine the various ways in which “infallibility” may be expressed and understood. 

Many well-meaning Catholics presume to behave as if the official teaching acts of the popes, whether issued in his name alone or in union with the world’s bishops (as in the Council), that do not fit a narrow (and frankly, incomplete) definition of infallibility, are therefore potentially erroneous, and what’s more, dangerously so. According to those who hold this view, such teachings can, and in fact must, be scrutinized by individual laymen (and clerics) in order to determine if they are true and thus merit our assent.

With this in mind, let’s see if we can clear up the confusion with a limited overview of infallibility:  

– There are two modes of infallible teaching of divinely revealed truth: One, the product of infallible acts of defining (e.g., General Councils, Ex Cathedra pronouncements) and two, that teaching of revealed truth that comes to us via the ordinary and universal magisterium (the bishops scattered throughout the world teaching in union with the pope). In both cases, such teachings are to be firmly held with “divine and catholic faith.”   

– The Church also exercises infallibility in teaching truths that are not formally revealed but are closely related to divine revelation. When so doing, she cannot err in her teaching of Christian doctrine on faith and morals. These teachings are undoubtedly true and free from error, even when the conditions that are required for an infallible definition of revealed truth, as noted above, have not been met.   

– In all cases, “the gift of truth and never failing faith” (First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus) bestowed by Our Lord upon Peter and his successors is such that the pope serves as the proximate source and guarantor of this infallibility.

Fr. Ludwig Ott, in his magnum opus, offers some additional clarity that will prove helpful as we continue:

The secondary object of the Infallibility is truths of the Christian teaching on faith and morals, which are not formally revealed, but which are closely connected with the teaching of Revelation. 

This doctrine is a necessary consequence of the doctrine of Infallibility which has the purpose “of preserving and of truly interpreting the deposit of Holy Faith” (D 1836). The Church could not achieve this purpose if she could not infallibly decide regarding doctrines and acts which are intimately linked with Revelation. She may exercise her power in these matters either positively by the determination of the truth or negatively by the rejection of the error opposed to the truth. (Fundamentals of Christian Dogma, pg. 299)

The Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches likewise:

This Spirit, first imparted to the Apostles, has by the infinite goodness of God always continued in the Church. And just as this one Church cannot err in faith or morals, since it is guided by the Holy Ghost; so, on the contrary, all other societies arrogating to themselves the name of church, must necessarily, because guided by the spirit of the devil, be sunk in the most pernicious errors, both doctrinal and moral. 

NB: The Church cannot err in faith or morals. No indication is given that unless the Church is teaching a truth formally revealed, or is adhering to a strict formula for infallibility, she is open to teaching error. Furthermore, and perhaps all the more importantly in our day, we are taught that any “church” that does teach doctrinal or moral error is a diabolical enterprise, that is, not of divine origin and therefore not the Church of Christ. 

In keeping with this, Pope Pius XI states that the Church enjoys “perpetual immunity from error and heresy” (cf Quas Primas). 

Note very well that this “perpetual immunity” applies not only to offenses (e.g., contradiction, doubt) against doctrines that are infallibly defined as divinely revealed – heresy properly so called – but also is she immune from so offending against Christian teaching on faith and morals more broadly speaking, error. The one true Church of Christ in her official teaching acts is immune from both

The following sheds light on our duty with respect to assenting to such teachings.

Despite the divergent views about the existence of the infallible pontifical teaching in the encyclical letters, there is one point on which all theologians are manifestly in agreement. They are all convinced that all Catholics are bound in conscience to give a definite internal religious assent to those doctrines which the Holy Father teaches when he speaks to the universal Church of God on earth without employing his God-given charism of infallibility. (Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals, The American Ecclesiastical Review, Volume 121)

With these basic truths having been established, let’s take a closer look at key excerpts taken from Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom of Vatican II, with emphasis added for clarity:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. (DH 2)

The declaration of this Vatican Council on the right of man to religious freedom has its foundation in the dignity of the person, whose exigencies have come to be fully known to human reason through centuries of experience. What is more, this doctrine of freedom has roots in divine revelation, and for this reason Christians are bound to respect it all the more conscientiously. Revelation does not indeed affirm in so many words the right of man to immunity from external coercion in matters religious. It does, however, disclose the dignity of the human person in its full dimensions. (DH 9)

In faithfulness therefore to the truth of the Gospel, the Church is following the way of Christ and the apostles when she recognizes and gives support to the principle of religious freedom as befitting the dignity of man and as being in accord with divine revelation. (DH 12) 

In this, the Council is teaching an error that was plainly condemned, nearly verbatim, by Pope Pius IX (and Pope Gregory XVI before him): 

For, surely you know, Venerable Brothers, that at this time not a few are found who, applying the impious and absurd principles of naturalism, as they call it, to civil society, dare to teach that “the best plan for public society, and civil progress absolutely requires that human society be established and governed with no regard to religion, as if it did not exist, or at least, without making distinction between the true and the false religions.” And also, contrary to the teaching of Sacred Scripture, of the Church, and of the most holy Fathers, they do not hesitate to assert that “the best condition of society is the one in which there is no acknowledgment by the government of the duty of restraining, by established penalties, offenders of the Catholic religion, except insofar as the public peace demands” (D 1689)

Before moving on, note very well that the Holy Father is declaring that the error in question is contrary to both Scripture and Tradition, that is, a formally revealed truth. Also, recall the citation from Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma which states that the Church “may exercise her power” to teach secondary objects of infallibility “by the rejection of the error opposed to the truth.” In other words, the condemnation set forth by Pope Pius IX is itself an infallible teaching.

For the sake of argument, let’s now assume that my friend, who shares the opinion of the SSPX, is correct:

The Second Vatican Council is a valid General Council of the Holy Catholic Church, Pope Paul VI was a valid Holy Roman Pontiff as were/are all of the claimants to the Chair of St. Peter that followed, and the bishops in union with them are true Successors to the Apostles.

As the above citations taken from Dignitatis Humanae indicate, in particular the emphasized portions of the text, it is undeniable that the Council’s teaching on religious liberty is deliberately and repeatedly being proposed as one “closely connected with the teaching of Revelation.” As such, the Council has left no room for no doubt; this teaching is being proposed as a “secondary object of the infallibility” (see Ott). 

NB: The statement, and for this reason Christians are bound to respect it all the more conscientiously...

An argument can be made that this amounts to a declaration that the teaching under discussion is binding (Christians are bound…), and yet, even apart from this, the teaching does bind by virtue of it being proposed as a secondary object of infallibility.

We must also consider that this same teaching – interpreted and understood in precisely the same meaning as the previously condemned error – has been insisted upon by the bishops scattered throughout the world, in union with numerous popes, consistently and continually for some fifty years, even among the most “traditional” of so-called “full communion” prelates (e.g., Burke, Schneider). 

As such, no one who wishes to be and remain a member of the Holy Roman Catholic Church has any right whatsoever to doubt, much less reject, the Council’s teaching on religious liberty. It is utterly impossible that the Church has erred in teaching this doctrine, and our assent is not optional. Period. 

Again, all of this would indeed be true provided this teaching actually comes to us from Holy Mother Church via a valid ecumenical council, a teaching that was approved and promulgated by a true Vicar of Christ, and one that continues to be taught by the bishops of the world in union with the currently reigning Roman Pontiff.

If, on the other hand, you take issue with the Council’s false teaching on religious liberty, as every Catholic must, there is only one conclusion that can be drawn: 

The conciliar version of religious liberty, having been condemned as contrary to Scripture and Tradition by the pre-conciliar popes, and yet proposed as a secondary object of infallibility at Vatican II, CANNOT possibly have come to us from Holy Mother Church via a valid ecumenical council. Furthermore, this erroneous teaching could NEVER be approved and promulgated by a true Vicar of Christ, nor could it continually be taught by true bishops in union with a validly reigning Roman Pontiff.

The hour is late, my friends. Choose this day who you will serve.